Stroud column: Divisions in public discourse, conduct are very real

A reader recently posted on Facebook regarding an article in the Post Independent about an ecumenical worship service organized by the congregations of four mainline Glenwood Springs churches.

The idea, according to the pastor who reached out to the PI for a little publicity ahead of the community church-in-the-park event, was to show some unity amid, in his words, the “widening and deepening divisions in our culture.”

Which prompted said reader to pose the critical observation and question, “not seeing much ‘division’ … up and down the Roaring Fork Valley. Am I not looking in the right places?”

As the saying goes, sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for all those trees going about their busy lives.

We do put on a pretty good front in our little slice of paradise here to pretend we all get along. But the divisions behind that front are real, and unfortunately that divide is deep between certain segments of our community.

One responder to this particular Facebook post suggested looking no further than the great social media divide itself, where some seem to find license to go off on people they don’t even know with one uninformed, hurtful comment after another.

Zuckerberg should have named it Faceless Book, if he’d foreseen what would possess some people.

The PI regularly monitors digital engagement from our readers as they react to the stories we share. It doesn’t seem to matter what the topic is, a quick scroll through the comments and you’ll find the divide.

It’s particularly evident anytime we write something of interest to our Latino community, which accounts for about a third of the residents here in Garfield County.

To borrow from one of my favorite rock bands, Rush, some of our readers are very quick to judge, and just as quick to anger in their ignorance, prejudice and fear [“Witch Hunt” – Moving Pictures].

Those four words added together equal hate.

The divide couldn’t be deeper.

I was encouraged in sending our son off to college at Colorado State University this past week, when the chancellor and president of the university, Dr. Tony Frank, summed it up in his convocation address to the incoming freshman class.

“There is no place for hate at CSU.”

He prefaced that by saying, “All ideas are welcome here, and they are protected here. That doesn’t mean you have to embrace all ideas. It does not mean you have to give up your beliefs for someone else’s …”

But some among us will use the cherished right to free speech to express hateful ideologies. In doing so, they in effect seek to frighten and silence others, and “to shut down the marketplace of ideas.”

When that right is misused, we can and must stand up.

It’s a simple but powerful message that our differences should not be used to divide. When differences are used instead to seek understanding, only then will divisions turn toward solutions.

Dr. Frank made another interesting point during his address to the new students, referring to them as “an elite class.”

“Elite” in the sense that they’re the fortunate ones who were accepted to study at an institution of higher learning, where they can be exposed to many new ideas and provided a filter to decide for themselves what’s best.

Many of the students this select group started school with 12 years ago won’t have that opportunity.

Talk about a divide.

So, who’s reaching that segment of our society? We shouldn’t have to shell out five figures a year to instill the message in our young people that hateful speech hurts, and does nothing to take the conversation toward a place of understanding.

CSU lists as its guiding “Principles of Community” – Inclusion, Integrity, Respect, Service and Social Justice.

It was apparent in the many messages shared all throughout welcome week at the Fort Collins campus.

It came in acknowledging the native tribes of people who inhabited the lands where the land-grant university now resides — a place where just recently a pair of prospective new students who happened to be Native American found themselves in an uncomfortable confrontation during a campus tour, just because of someone’s misinformed, rush-to-judge suspicions.

It also came in Dr. Frank’s stern message to the young men sitting in the stands that sexual violence and misbehavior will not be tolerated, and that they are the ones, both individually and collectively, who can put an end to it.

It’s good to know that the place we send our own son off to for the next four years of his life journey strives to live by those basic principles of seeking understanding first, and erasing divisive hate from our minds.

In the words sung by the late Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me …”

Yes, the divide is there, and it’s deep and wide in places. But it can be bridged if we just stop and think about what it is we’re saying to each other, whatever the forum, and raise the bar in our public discourse.

John Stroud is editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. His column, In Defiance, appears monthly.

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